By Jake Mintz
Fox Sports MLB writer
Yermín Mercedes took the baseball world by storm when he started the season with eight hits in his first eight bats.
It was an incredible spectacle: the anonymous 28-year-old White Sox newbie who was built like a punch buggy with forearms that casually sprayed base strokes over the diamond. In a series starring Mike Trout, Tim Anderson, Lucas Giolito, Anthony Rendon and reigning MVP Jose Abreu, Mercedes was the biggest story (at least until Shohei Ohtani had the biggest inning in baseball history on Sunday night).
Then, on Thursday afternoon, Mercedes shot a ball to a whopping 485 feet, the longest homer of the 2021 season to date.
But the White Sox’s DH / backup catcher / he-doesn’t-really-hit-a-position-just-goddamn it – didn’t just show up out of nowhere. Its creation is a decades-long story of perseverance, irrational self-confidence and raw talent. Though he’s certainly rubbed some passers-by the wrong way on his trip to the bigs, Mercedes’ pomp, style and unwavering belief in his own ability have made him one of the nicest surprises of the young season.
“He actually thinks he is Johnny Bench,” CJ Lugo, general manager of Mercedes’ Dominican Winter League, told FOX Sports. “But that’s also part of what makes him such a good batsman.”
Originally signed by the Nationals as an 18-year-old in 2011, Mercedes wasn’t even a prospect. His signature history is wild.
A group of Nats Boy Scouts in the Dominican Republic went to La Romana on the east end of the island to explore a pitcher that is definitely not called Yermin Mercedes. This pitcher needed a catcher in training, so someone made a local kid squat. As a thank you, they let the child take a bat. He smoked one on the wall. They gave him another blow. He crushed another. At the end of the week, Mercedes was part of the Washington organization.
But despite beating over 0.300 as a catcher in three seasons in the Dominican Summer League, he was released in the winter of 2013. He had earned a reputation for showing up late, not always giving 100 percent, and pumping himself up to anyone within earshot. Basically, he made it big.
That kind of confidence is fun and adorable when you’re in a fun-loving big league clubhouse like the White Sox. It’s decidedly less if you haven’t even hit Low-A. As a result, the Nats decided that the slow, old-fashioned catcher with the big mouth was not worth the effort.
For most people that would have been a career. But Yermin Mercedes aren’t most people. The same irrational self-esteem that angered some in the Nats complex motivated Mercedes to try again in the independent Pecos League.
The Pecos League is respectfully the end of the American professional baseball hierarchy. It’s the sporty equivalent of a tumbleweed rolling down an empty freeway. The teams are spread across the Americas, playing on high school fields and in half a century old stadiums built for mining companies in the 1940s. A great night in most places would be 100 stubs on the seats.
Only a handful of Pecos players have ever made it to the majors in the circuit’s ten-year history. As for professional baseball, it couldn’t be further from the big ones.
But here Yermin Mercedes came back on track.
He started with the Douglas (Arizona) Diablos but eventually switched to the White Sands Pupfish in New Mexico after the Diablos’s trainer, fed up with his antics, went to the White Sands shelter and asked if they wanted this chubby catcher.
Mike DeLong, a pitcher for the pupfish, asked the manager to take the kid in, so they did. DeLong became Mercedes’ roommate, pretending to be five years older than him to help out the young player.
“He’s been misunderstood,” explained DeLong. “His English wasn’t great so a lot got lost in translation. But if you spoke Spanish you knew he was just a fool. One of the funniest guys I’ve played with.”
Most Pecos League teams play in the dry summer heat in the desert, so offensive numbers can get pretty gaudy. Even under these circumstances, Mercedes’ ridiculous 2014 stint with the pupfish stands out: he hit .417 with 37 homers and 13 doubles in 37 games. He was downright dominant.
“They knew right away he was different,” said DeLong, who has kept in touch with Mercedes and plans to visit him at a White Sox game this season. “The way his hands and feet worked – just different. Nobody could get him out.”
This offensive show by the Bonkers put Mercedes back on the radar, and after a brief stint with the now defunct San Angelo Colts of the now defunct United Baseball League, he signed a minor league contract with the Orioles.
His tater-laden year 2014 also caught the attention of Tigres del Licey, the Yankees of the Dominican Winter League. The club selected Mercedes in the draft membership for the Dominican Winter League 2014 – a rare event for a player with no experience in an affiliated minor league in the USA
But it was clear to Lugo, then a Licey Front Office official before he became GM, that all Mercedes needed was a shot.
“We saw a young Dominican catcher who consistently hit over 300,” said Lugo, “and we asked, ‘Why is there no one else with this guy?'”
Since then, Mercedes has kept that promise, evolving into one of Licey’s more powerful sluggers over the past half decade, topping 300 or more each season.
Along with its impressive winter ball demonstrations, Mercedes began its ascent into the minor leagues with the Orioles: Delmarva one year, Frederick the next, Bowie the year after. Although he continued to beat around 300, the Orioles left him unprotected in the 2018 Rule 5 draft.
As a bad defensive catcher with average performance figures, Mercedes was not exactly an organizational cornerstone. As such, the White Sox took him in and left him in the minors until a 23-homer rush in Double-A and Triple-A in 2019 put him on the big league’s radar.
He spent most of the pandemic in the alternative location with a very short cup of coffee in August 2020. Then this year he turned spring training into the big league squad after making his way through the Cactus League – and booming! Yermin Mercedes started the 2021 season at 8 against 8.
It should be noted that the rise of Mercedes was not without incident. His time with the Nationals ended earlier than it should have been due to his laconic demeanor. More recently, Licey has suspended him for the past two seasons: 2019 for unannounced rescue of the team from the first pitch and 2020 for violating COVID-19 protocols.
The line between trust and overconfidence is good. Over the years, Mercedes has built a character around itself that enabled him to truly believe, despite all odds, that he could be a great leaguer. While the attitude that he was too good for some of the lower levels of professional baseball was certainly stressful at times, it was largely confirmed by Mercedes’ promotion to the majors.
It is particularly fitting that he is doing this with the 2021 White Sox, a team with exciting players on the line-up.
Regardless of whether Mercedes can continue like this, its presence in the major leagues is a success in and of itself. Whether he hits .600 for the rest of his career or drops out before Labor Day, Mercedes has made it. Plain and simple.
He has already proven otherwise to the unbelievers. Sure, he’d love a long and lucrative MLB career, but when you look at his face after each of his first eight hits there is an unmistakable sense of accomplishment and validation.
Because it turns out that Yermín Mercedes was absolutely right that Yermín Mercedes is great at baseball.
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Jake Mintz is the full half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball analyst for FOX Sports. He is an Orioles fan who lives in New York City, and as a result, leads a lonely life for most of October. When he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. You can follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Mintz.
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